Has lurid fiction like the movie Iron Sky any basis in fact? Everyone knows that WW2 Germany developed rockets far in advance of the Allies, but some argue that in 1945 the Third Reich was on the verge of developing a space program!
Ever since Adolf Hitler’s ‘Thousand Year’ Third Reich was utterly defeated, this awful regime has held a horrid fascination in the popular imagination. One aspect that interests many is Nazi Germany’s frightening array of military hardware. Despite an astonishingly corrupt and incompetent procurement bureaucracy, the Nazis fielded some very technologically advanced weapons (and less often-mentioned, many disastrous flops too). Among the successes were the heavy Tiger tanks, assault rifles, IR nightsights, the excellent Focke Wulf fighter ‘planes, the Me262 jetfighter and the V-2 ballistic missile (of course the Allies had their own brilliant technological triumphs: such as ULTRA, centimetric radar, the B-29 and above all the atomic bomb, the things that actually did win the war) .
In the past few years stories of other, more amazing schemes from the Third Reich have appeared, stories of intercontinental missiles and orbiting spaceplanes (all adorned with swastikas). These started on the internet (for example, until recently Wikipedia’s article on the Aggregate rocket family used to state that several Luftwaffe pilots made space flights in 1945 until saner editors prevailed) and since have spread to books and TV documentaries. Are there the slightest grains of truth in these tales of Nazis in space?
Of course, Germany was the first nation to field a ballistic missile in the sleek shape of Wernher von Braun’s V-2. The name V-2, for Vergeltungswaffe 2 (Vengeance Weapon 2), was an invention of Nazi propagandists, more correctly, this missile was designated A4, one of the A-series rockets developed by von Braun (1912-77) and his colleagues since the 1930s. The German army had begun sponsoring von Braun’s research even before Hitler came to power, seeing missile weapons as an alternative to the long-range artillery forbidden to post-WW1 Germany. Built by a workforce of slaves labouring in hideous underground factories managed by sadistic murdering thugs (as many as 20 000 people died building A4s, and about 7250 more people were killed by the missiles, never forget this), the A4 was a staggeringly futuristic rocket. Rising from its launch pad under 25 tonnes of thrust from its alcohol and liquid oxygen-fuelled engine, it could carry a 975 kg (2150 lb) warhead at supersonic speed up to 314 km (195 miles) from its launching site. First successfully launched in 1942, it was fired against Allied cities, including London, Antwerp and Paris from 1944. Sometime in 1944, an A4 reached an altitude of 189 km (117 miles) making it the first man-made object to reach space. This would have been a propaganda triumph for the Third Reich, but the Kármán line, the boundary 100 km (62 miles) above our heads where space officially begins was not yet defined at that time.
Yet impressive though it was, the A4 was not (except in Hitler’s dreams) a war-winning weapon, its range and destructiveness were adequate for a European war, but not for a global conflagration. Aware of this, von Braun and his team had investigated longer ranged A4 derivatives. One result was the A9, a winged A4, which was intended to glide up to 800km (497 miles) from its launch site, but von Braun was thinking on a yet more grandiose scale.
The A10 design was started in 1936, and resembled a giant A4 with a unique 100 tonne thrust engine formed from six of the A4’s engines feeding a single exhaust. Originally the aim was to carry a 4 tonne warhead 500km (310 miles). By 1941 the A10 had evolved into the lower stage of an intercontinental missile. Mounted on top of the A10 would be an A9, launched from western France this combination was hoped to be capable of launching 1 tonne warheads at New York city. Just like today’s shuttle SRBs, the A10 was meant to descend under a parachute into the ocean for recovery and reuse. The combined A9/10 would have been comparable in size to the 1950s US Atlas missile, later used to launch Mercury project astronauts into orbit. This concept sounds impressive but it was a fantasy. The whole configuration of the A9/10 is primitive and would not have worked. No A10 component was ever built and the project was officially abandoned in 1943 (anything you may read to the contrary is a modern invention). Here is a short movie on this project, please note that virtually the entire narration is unfounded speculation.
The Germans planned a piloted craft based on this research. Among the engineering drawings of the A9 discovered after the war were a set showing the rocket modified with a pressurised cockpit and a tricycle undercarriage. Capable of a maximum speed of Mach 3.4 at an altitude of 20km, its performance would have been astonishing for the 1940s. The purpose of this vehicle is unclear; many sources claim that this was a suicide bomber, imagining a fanatical Nazi pilot steering his craft into the Empire State Building or the White House. Ignoring the infeasibility of this scenario, the craft had no space for a warhead and was meant to land on a runway for reuse, presumably it was for high speed research or possibly reconnaissance missions. Combined with an A10 booster, this manned craft could cross the Atlantic in 40 minutes, or fly above the Kármán line (assuming it all worked as planned, an unlikely prospect). This never happened and this vehicle was never built. No Nazi astronauts flew into space on it and no CGI images, however pretty, will ever make this true. Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space.
Further decrying the modern myths, the combined A9/10 vehicles were not meant to launch payloads into orbit. However von Braun did claim that during the war that he had designed a reusable orbital space vehicle to assemble and service a wheel-shaped space station. This seems to have been a lie aimed at his US Army captors perhaps to help sell his services to them. He called the spacecraft and its launch vehicle the A11/12 and they appear to have actually been designed when he was in detention in 1946. Again this project was never built and was far beyond 1940s technology, designed without later knowledge of high-speed aerodynamics and atmospheric heating, the craft as planned would have disintegrated in flight had it been launched.
The other great Nazi “space project” was Eugene Sänger’s Silbervogel (Silverbird) or “Antipodal Bomber”, a fully-fledged spaceplane. Sänger (1905-64) was a gifted engineer who had been investigating supersonic flight and rocket engines since the early 1930s. At this time he sketched plans for a rocket-powered supersonic passenger aircraft (note that contemporary airliners were mainly biplanes which cruised at 160 km/h or so). Offered a post by the Luftwaffe (the Nazi armed forces jealously guarded their pet projects from each other; von Braun was employed by the army and later the SS, he and Sanger were kept ignorant of each other’s work), Sänger remodeled this civilian vehicle into an extraordinary bomber.
A flattened metal cigar 28m long with stubby wings, a Silverbird would have begun its mission pushed along a 3 km (2 mile) long monorail track somewhere in Germany by a large rocket-powered sled. Once airborne, the craft’s pilot would ignite its large rocket motor accelerating it to ten times the speed of sound. Gliding over the Atlantic, the Silverbird would drop up to eight tonnes of bombs (claims that it was meant to carry a nuclear device are once again recent inventions) on targets in the eastern US, before traversing the whole American continent. As it flew it would make a series of hops, soaring out of the atmosphere, then diving back. Each time it skipped into space it would lose velocity and radiate the heat generated by its hypersonic flight, avoiding the need for a heatshield. Finally it would land on a runway somewhere in the Pacific (presumably on some Japanese-occupied island) where a second track would launch it back to the Fatherland.
Here is more breathless and unrealistic speculation.
It is an amazing scheme but completely unworkable with WW2-era technology and the Luftwaffe agreed, closing the project down in 1942 and putting Sänger to work on more conventional projects. Even today we would have difficultly building such a vehicle, only the Space Shuttle has higher performance. In fact the Silverbird’s predicted performance was based on a completely unrealistic empty weight of 10 tonnes plus 90 tonnes of propellent. By contemporary standards this empty weight seems a ludicrous underestimate, using WW2 era technology building so lightweight a vehicle would have been impossible.. The planned craft contained many elegant technical solutions, the self-cooling engine for example, but despite all the modern computer-generated movies and images of the Silverbird in flight, it would never have worked as designed. The Silverbird would have never attained its fantastic speed and range. Even if it had succeeded in reaching the proposed speed and altitude, the proposed ‘hopping’ flight path to shed heat was hopelessly inefficient; at high speed a Silverbird would catastrophically turn itself into a shower of aluminium meteors. Although Sänger tested wind tunnel models of this project, it never came anywhere near construction. Some websites feature indistinct photographs claimed to be of a partly assembled Silverbird but these are not correct.
I should also mention, but only briefly as they are nonsense, the wilder still ideas that the Teutonic supermen were planning an orbiting battle station (das Todesstern?) to focus intense beams of sunlight onto terrestrial targets or even invented anti-gravity devices and installed them in a fleet of flying saucers. Apart from the sheer foolishness of this latter theory, some of its promoters are deeply sinister apologists for Hitler’s regime who deserve only to be ignored. Parodying this nonsense seems to the aim of the Iron Sky movie.
In reality, Nazi Germany never had a space program in the sense of a plan to explore and exploit Earth orbit and beyond. I would argue that it is a pity that it didn’t. The world today might even be a better place if Hitler had taken a personal interest in these proposals. An ignoramus on technical matters, the Führer often overruled his less fantasy-prone advisors, deciding to throw resources at projects that appealed to him, no matter how ludicrous such as the impressive-looking, hugely expensive yet militarily pointless 188 tonne Maus tank and Dora superguns. As a result millions of Reichmarks were squandered and Allied victory crept a little nearer. According to historian Steven J Zaloga, the A4 missile project “achieved nothing of significant military value” but cost Germany the equivalent of $2 billion (1945 values, and roughly the same as the Allies spent on the Manhattan Project). That was $2 billion not spent on the tens of thousands of tanks or fighter planes which could have slowed the Allies’ advances. Just think, if Germany in 1940 had started to seriously develop von Braun and Sanger’s creations, how much more money would have been wasted? The war might have ended in Allied victory years earlier, millions of innocent lives could have been spared and A9 and Silverbird prototypes would be popular exhibits at the Smithsonian and Imperial War Museums.
Lowther, Scott, “Raumwaffe 1946”, Aerospace Projects Review, September-October 2003, p3-57
Parsons, Zack, My tank is fight: deranged inventions of WWII, Citadel Press, New York, 2006
Rose, Bill, Secret Projects: Military Space Technology, Midland Counties Publications, Hersham, 2008
Zaloga, Steven, J, V-2 ballistic missile 1942-52, Osprey, Oxford, 2003
Despite the popularity of Nazi victory tales in alternate history fiction, semi-realistic depictions of German rocketry are rare. A Silverbird attack on the US is thwarted in Allen Steele’s short alternate history tale Goddard’s People (1991). The 1965 movie Operation Crossbow is an entertaining but historically dubious yarn about the Allied response to the development of the V-weapons; at the film’s climax a giant intercontinental rocket is being prepared for launch from an underground silo but it is destroyed by RAF bombers. Vengeance 10 (1982) by Joe Poyer goes a step beyond this, being both an epic “Boys Own” adventure of a British agent and a parallel story of German preparations for a lunar mission in WW2 (I’m not sure it this is an ‘Alternate History’ or a ‘Secret History’), it is an interesting read but whitewashes von Braun’s character to a remarkable extent.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Communicator)